In the 1990s, Benjamin Netanyahu won the country’s election for the first time, a few months after the assassination of late-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. But this was only possible with the assistance of legendary American Jewish election strategist Arthur Finkelstein. He helped Netanyahu replace Shimon Peres as Prime Minister of Israel in 1996 by a slim majority. It was Finkelstein who was behind the slogan “Peres will divide Jerusalem” that bolstered Netanyahu’s campaign. This election changed the tone of Israeli politics, importing more aggressive and negative American-style campaigning.
One question Finkelstein asked in local surveys to understand if people would vote for Netanyahu was, “How do you identify yourself first: As a Jew or as an Israeli?” The Jews voted for Netanyahu, the Israelis voted for Shimon Peres. Everyone still remembers the sentence Netanyahu whispered into the ear of the wise Torah sage Yitzhak Kaduri in 1997, just in time for the media to hear: “The left have forgotten what it means to be a Jew.”
Netanyahu’s election campaign at the time, from which he has never deviated, was that you are either with him, or an enemy of the people. His campaign slogan at the time, “Netanyahu is good for the Jews,” summed it up. If you are not for Netanyahu, then you are not good for the Jews, and therefore an enemy of the Jews. And if Netanyahu is good for the Jews, that also means Netanyahu is bad for the Arabs. During the “Oslo” negotiations, the people protested violently against the possible land concessions. In this case it was the religious Jews, the settlers and right-wing voters. What drove them onto the streets was the territorial compromises in the biblical heartland of Judea and Samaria. As a Jew, one must not compromise on biblical land.
And today, 30 years later, we are still at the same point. Jews versus Israelis. But this time, in the shadow of this equation, the “Israelis” took to the streets, just as the “Jews” protested 30 years ago. For the Israelis, the controversial judicial reform is the trigger, and for the Jews, the trigger was the land concessions. In both cases, Benjamin Netanyahu was and is the key figure. He and his electoral strategists created the gap and won the elections. And today the same thing is repeated, only in reverse. This time the so-called Israelis, the opponents of reform, are protesting. The Israeli legal system is just as valuable to them as the biblical heartland of Judea and Samaria was and is important to the so-called Jews.
[Editor’s Note: Of course, Shimon Peres himself alluded to this gap when he infamously quipped following the election that “the Jews” had won and “the Israelis” had lost, suggesting that this division predated Netanyahu’s exploitation of it.]
So we return to the same discussion, Jews or Israelis. What do we want to be? These are two different worldviews tearing Israel apart in politics and society. It doesn’t matter how we describe it, the so-called first Israel, or second Israel, or is it more of an uprising against globalization in Israel? In the end, this is quite simply a question of identity. And if everything calms down a bit in the next few weeks, everything will explode again with the next identity crisis in the Israeli parliament, namely the controversial right of return (Aliyah) for Jewish immigrants.
The Law of Return allows anyone who has a Jewish mother or father, has converted to Judaism and does not belong to any other religion to immigrate to the country. In addition, the right of return also applies to the children and grandchildren of Jews. And these grandchildren want to take the Orthodox and religious parties out of the equation. Again, the issue of identity is at stake here.
What has broken out in the country in the last 12 weeks is as much about identity as anything else: which are we first, Jews or Israelis? The difference between the left and the right is this: the right sees themselves first as Jews, then Israelis and finally as members of the world community. On the left it is exactly the opposite, they first see themselves as a general human being, then as an Israeli and finally as a Jew. Two worldviews that have repeatedly caused division among the people of Israel, not only today but also in the past. Hellenistic Judaism was also at odds with right-wing and religious Jews in the first and second centuries BC. The Jewish people have always argued about this and it will probably continue to do so in the future. And nobody knows the difference in the political twist between “Jews and Israelis” better than Benjamin Netanyahu. Two philosophies of life that should actually belong together in Eretz Israel, but have repeatedly separated us.
Israel Today Membership
Save 18% Per Month.
Six Months Membership
Save 9% Per Month.